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23-03-2012 - AFP

Saudi activist says banned from travel to US

Saudi authorities have banned prominent rights activist Waleed Abu Alkhair from travelling to the United States where he was to attend a forum organised by the US State Department, he told AFP. "Public prosecutors have issued an order banning me from travel for security reasons, two days before I must head to Washington to take part" in the forum, Alkhair said late on Wednesday. Alkhair, a well-known activist and lawyer, said the order had come from public prosecutors in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah. He has been slammed by ultra-conservative clerics in Saudi Arabia, who accuse him of "heresy", "defaming Islam", and of "spreading destructive thoughts" which they say influenced Hamza Kashgari, a journalist held over Tweets deemed insulting to Islam's Prophet Mohammed. Kashgari, 23, fled to Malaysia in February after his comments sparked a wave of condemnation and threats against his life, but was later deported back to Saudi Arabia where he was arrested. Insulting the prophet is considered blasphemous in Islam and is a crime punishable by death in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. Alkhair, who signed in February 2011 two petitions demanding political reform in the kingdom, has created a group on social networking website Facebook -- Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi -- which has over 5,000 members. According to Human Rights Watch, access to the group's page on Facebook has been blocked. Alkhair's wife, Samar Badawi, was awarded the prestigious "Women of Courage Award" by the US State Department after she filed a lawsuit against her father challenging the kingdom's rigid guardian system for women. Under the guardian system, a Saudi woman must have the permission of her official "mahram" or male guardian -- her father, husband, son, or another male relative -- for matters such as travel, work and marriage. Badawi, supported by her husband, has also filed lawsuits against the government demanding rights for women to vote and drive in the only country in the world where females are banned from getting behind the wheel of a vehicle.

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